The N.C. House and N.C. Senate have big differences in their respective budget bills, and in the realm of saltwater fisheries, a big one is a fund created to help the commercial fishing industry that takes money collected from the public and allows a group of private citizens to determine how it is spent. The Senate wants it; the House doesn’t.
In the Senate’s budget bill that passed on May 31, the North Carolina Commercial Fishing Resource Fund was created by earmarking a percentage of the sale of every commercial fishing license and every recreational commercial gear license to the fund.
The establishment of the fund was no big surprise was needed to cover the cost of observers required by Incidental Take Permits for endangered sea turtles. The legislature funded the observers last year but told the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries it needed to find other funding in the future. The surprise was who the Senate thought should administrate this fund.
The bill establishes a board of directors for the NCCFRF that would be comprised of one member each from the North Carolina Fisheries Association, North Carolina Watermen United, Ocracoke Working Waterman’s Association, Albemarle Fisherman’s Association, Carteret County Fisherman’s Association and Brunswick County Fisherman’s Association. The board would work with the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission to determine when, where and how funds would be use – placing six commercial fishing organizations in charge of determining where state funds would be used that would directly affect their businesses.
When the House got its turn at the plate, its version of the budget bill unveiled on June 10 did not include the NCCFRF or a board of directors to run it. It included increases in the cost of commercial fishing licenses, with funds from those increases earmarked to cover the observer program, to be administered by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission.
House votes on the budget bill are planned for today and on Friday. Disagreements between the House and Senate versions of the bill will be worked out in a conference committee, and the bill should head to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature sometime next week.
The Senate bill raised hackles across the commercial and recreational fishing industries for several reasons.
First, all commercial fishermen and RCGL license holders would have money from their purchases spent by a board of private citizens whose businesses would almost certainly be affected by the decisions. Several commercial fishermen, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said they are not members of any of the six groups and don’t feel the groups will represent their interests.
Second, representation on the NCCFRF board appeared skewed toward commercial fishermen from the northeastern and central coasts. The largest percentage of NCFA members are from Carteret County to the Virginia border. Of the other spots on the board, only the Brunswick County group has significant membership south of Carteret County. None of the organizations represented on the board directly represent fishermen in New Hanover, Pender or Onslow counties.
“With most of the people on the board from Morehead City and (north), does anyone really believe we’ll get a fair shake down south when it comes to spending this money?” one commercial fisherman asked. “The most recent example we have is last fall, when fishermen there rushed to catch all the red drum allocation before the season opened for us down south. They didn’t just catch the fall and winter allocation, they caught them all for the whole year. You don’t catch that many more fish than usual and not realize something is different.”
Some confusion also exists in both the House and Senate versions of the bill regarding the Recreational Commercial Gear License. On different pages of both bills, different fees and increases are discussed. In both bills, one section raises the RCGL license fee from $43.75 to $70 for state residents, while the non-resident fee stays at $312.50. Farther into both bills, the RCGL license fees remain at $43.75 and $312.50.
North Carolina residents can let their legislators know how they feel about this and all pending legislation. A list and contact information for all legislators can be found at www.ncleg.net.